The Republican convention has redefined the Republican Party as the party of the American majority. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, it is a party infused with a vision, committed to a cause, and united behind a leader who is not afraid to lead.
In Philadelphia, the Bush campaign repositioned the Republican Party as a party of diversity, inclusion and opportunity -- the party of American ideals. For four nights, the Bush message was this: We are committed to reuniting our nation by treating everyone according to his or her individual merit, by tearing down our internal walls between rich and poor, black and white, and all minority groups, by extending opportunity to everyone. We will reach out to every willing heart and leave no child behind.
This is the framework of an American governing party. If Republicans stay the course and remain faithful to these goals, they will win.
In the aftermath of Philadelphia, the Democrats and their allies in the press are crying, “It’s not fair. They’re pretending to be Democrats. They’re for diversity? Who are they kidding? Only Democrats and caring human beings can be for diversity. Real Republicans can’t want that. Inclusion? Only Democrats have a social conscience. Republicans can’t want inclusion. Republicans are mean-spirited and reactionary and intolerant. They’re anti-minority. They’re racists without the sheets.
First, if you really can’t tell the difference between Democrats and the Republicans in Philadelphia, try recalling when you last saw a Democratic convention that devoted a whole night to praise of the military and the call for a greater national defense. For that, you’d have to go back to John F. Kennedy (in truth, a Reagan Democrat). And that’s only one issue among many that define the profound differences between Democrats and the new Republicans.
Second, BINGO!!! Yes, the Republicans in Philadelphia looked like caring and inclusive Americans. And that’s why Democrats and press liberals are hysterical. They’re desperate; they’re going nuts. Because Republicans have taken away their target! If Republicans don’t look like the demons they’re often portrayed as, who are Democrats going to attack?
Republicans have taken away the Democrats’ target and they don’t know what to do. Because even though they once were the party of FDR, today “the only thing they have to offer is fear itself.” If Republicans look like Democrats (you know, compassionate, caring, no horns and tails) then independents, swing voters, and even centrists in their own party will be more ready to listen to what Republicans have to say, and more likely to vote Republican in November. (Bush was up 17 points among independent voters as of the close of the convention.)
The genius behind this strategy is Bush campaign chief Karl Rove, who understands better than anyone in politics today the shape of the political battlefield. Two years ago, Rove invited me to Austin where I laid out a strategy very similar to the one he has followed, although mine was really a broad outline and lacked the detail and finesse with which he has achieved his miracle in Philadelphia. Shortly after leaving Austin, I wrote a booklet called The Art of Political War, which explained the political problem this way:
“How is it that Democrats are able to campaign on Republican programs and ideas - balanced budgets welfare reform, family values - and beat Republicans who have been championing these issues for decades? My answer is that Republicans do not understand (as Democrats do) that politics is war conducted by other means; that it is a war of position, and that you can only win by linking your agendas directly to the interests of women, children, minorities, working Americans and the poor.”
I was pleased to see Dick Cheney use my line about politics being war conducted by other means. But I was even more gratified by the way the entire convention projected an image of caring and inclusive conservatism.
Going into the next phase of this electoral campaign, the Republican Party’s great strength lies in its unity behind this strategy. Let’s be candid about this. The unity of the Republican Party comes partly from fear. Conservatives understand the stakes of this battle and are terrified of what four or eight more years like the last eight would mean. But they are also united behind a leader who has a positive vision that inspires them, and who has principles they can trust.
Because the Republicans are energized and united, they can reach out to the center, to independent voters and the undecided. This means they can afford to be confident and inclusive. As a coalition, they can afford to focus on winning today, knowing that there will be plenty of occasion to define their differences tomorrow. In the decisive months of this campaign, they can offer a vision that is positive and elevating, and that unites Americans behind a common purpose. A vision that is generous and responsible, compassionate and conservative. In other words, Republicans can take to the American people the image of a governing party.
By way of contrast, the Democratic base is divided and uncertain. Al Gore is only getting 77% of the Democratic vote, whereas Bush is getting support from 92% of Republicans. Up to now, Gore has run a negative and inconsistent campaign. Consequently, while Bush excites Republicans, Democrats are less than happy and even somewhat disgusted with Gore. Al Gore has a problem with the truth. He has difficulty deciding who he is. He is changeable about what he wants, and thus untrustworthy.
The selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman, perhaps the most conservative Democrat in Congress, will not do much to help Al Gore consolidate his base. An ally of Tipper Gore in the campaign to censor Hollywood and the media, Lieberman will make an already restive liberal wing of the party even more disaffected. This will cancel out any ability he has to move the campaign to the center where it has to be to win. Nor will he do much to diminish the scandal factor, despite his moral disapproval of Clinton during the impeachment process. How can a vice presidential candidate’s disapproval erase the presidential candidate’s immoderate embrace of the culprit himself? Moreover, Al Gore has his own scandal problem in the Buddhist Temple affair, the White House coffees and other campaign finance illegalities.
Because Gore is behind, and his troops are listless, he must go negative in the months ahead. He must energize his base, and tarnish his opponent’s luster. But this negativity will work to Republicans’ advantage (provided the attacks are rapidly answered). Attacks by the Lieberman-Gore team will make Al Gore look more political and less presidential, and further erode his support.
The electorate itself is sick of negativism and rancor, and the politics of division. The more Al Gore attacks, the shriller the candidate becomes, and the narrower will be his appeal. In other words, Al Gore is in a box. The Bush campaign will do everything it can to keep him there.
Finally, the terrain of battle is favorable to Republicans. The Bush team has positioned Republicans in a way that gives them a clear edge in the conflicts ahead. Democrats seem to think they have an advantage on the issues, while the Bush team is counting on a personality race. This is delusional. The race has already been an issue-dominated race. The positioning of Republicans as a caring party has been accomplished as much by its embrace of social issues like education, social security and health care, as by the packaging of the Republican convention in Philadelphia.
What has taken place in these last few months has been the redesigning of American politics by the Republican candidate and his chief strategist Karl Rove. Republicans are grateful for this, and it already looks like America is too.